Lancet editor attacks UK government for ‘catastrophic’ handling of Covid-19 pandemic

Missed opportunities and appalling misjudgments by the government over its handing of the Covid-19 pandemic have led to the avoidable deaths of thousands of people. That is the stark view of Lancet editor Richard Horton in an interview in the Observer’s New Review this week.

Horton – whose book, The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again – lambasts the UK management of the outbreak, describing it as the greatest science policy failure of a generation.

For good measure, Horton, who has been editor-in-chief of the Lancet for 25 years, also attacks the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) for becoming “the public relations wing of a government that had failed its people” and denounces Public Health England (PHE) for not taking proper note of the World Health Organization’s public health emergency warning about the disease. He also dismisses the UK’s response to the emergence of the Covid-19 virus as “slow, complacent and flat-footed”, a reaction that show the government was “glaringly unprepared” for the pandemic.

Horton has been strident in his denunciation of Britain’s political leaders and health chiefs since the emergence of Covid-19 and now believes that to restore their damaged reputation those individuals need to acknowledge their mistakes. “I think that’s going to have to start with Sage, the chief scientific officer and the chief medical officer being very clear that the signals were missed from January,” says Horton. “Individually, they’re great people, but the system was a catastrophic failure.”

Why did the UK take so long to lock down, he asks, and why, despite all the warnings, first from China and then from Italy, did we seem to be caught unawares by the speed and lethality of the virus?

As editor of the Lancet, Horton was responsible for publishing a series of five academic papers in January that first described the novel coronavirus in detail and outlined measures for combating the outbreak. Several papers talked about the importance of personal protective equipment, testing, avoiding mass gatherings, school closure and lockdowns. “All of the things that have happened in the last three months, they’re all in those five papers.”